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Competency-Based -- Is it Education or Training?

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Competency-Based – is it “Education” or is it “Training”?

Competency-Based Education (CBE) is a new model for how to organize learning to fit the needs of a growing number of learners of all ages.  Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), who keynoted the AAEEBL Annual Conference this past July, refers to movements such as CBE as new “eco-systems.”  One College at SNHU – College for America – is a CBE “eco-system.”

CAEL estimates that over 600 U. S. institutions are at some point of adoption of CBE. And it’s not hard to see the sound practical reasons for adopting CBE at an institution of higher learning:

1.     Not all college students are in the 18-22 year range any longer but instead some institutions’ student bodies average age 32 or older.  The needs of older students are much different than those of the traditional age students that our institutions were designed to serve.

2.     Employers are asking for more than a diploma and transcript as our economy has changed radically and “competence” is expected immediately upon hire.  

3.     All students, regardless of age do learn at different paces so having just one pace (one size fits all) never did make sense.  Colleges and universities have adjusted pace a bit by offering some courses that can be tested out of, or by offering an honors program, but CBE is “adjusting” even further by saying students in a CBE program can learn at their own pace. 

4.     Learning at your own pace can save money if your own pace is less than the usual 2 or 4 years toward a degree. 

5.     Online learning has improved, learning on the job is becoming accepted as a legitimate and endorsable form of learning, and the concept of “personalized learning” has grown.  Learning resources are everywhere.  The notion that “seat time” is a magic formula for learning is of course now “quaint” except that it still prevails. 

6.     The stakes for proving that a candidate for a job can do the job have gone up.  Employers do want concrete evidence of competence. 

And there are many other reasons for CBE to be growing so quickly.

CBE is Meeting a Need

At first blush, then, CBE can be seen as a reasonable response to current conditions.  The inevitable question, however, is about the quality of the education and learning in a CBE program (never mind that the same question can be asked about the current state of learning in a traditional learning ecology). 

CBE is the Formalizing of Tracking Student Progress Toward Learning Outcomes 

The eportfolio community has grappled with CBE for years in the guise of “tracking students’ progress toward learning outcomes.”  Years ago, the focus on outcomes seemed antithetical to the kind of learning our community believed in – reflective, integrative, creative, authentic, experiential.  Our community was divided along the line dividing the two uses for eportfolio technology – institutional research (tracking student outcomes) or for improved learning. Now CBE has carried the tracking toward outcomes to a higher degree and also toward a specialized use of eportfolio – not so much a learning space but more so a credentialing space, recording what assessment tasks have been accomplished. 

Contrasting CBE with Liberal Arts

The eportfolio community is energized by a liberal arts oriented extension of learning opportunities (using eportfolios) that furthers a liberal arts agenda.  CBE, instead, while reinforcing some aspects of the eportfolio idea, tends more toward the vocational end of the learning spectrum:  a focus on the job. 

Once the learning outcomes become the goal, learning can become like “studying for the test.”  If one has ONLY the learning outcome to aim for, what about serendipitous learning?  What about chance, invention, curiosity?  It could seem that the learning outcome can turn learning into one-track learning just as the curriculum has done in many cases.  CBE serves the needs of many learners quite adequately and necessarily, so my comments are not meant to be critical. 

In CBE literature, a number of adjectives are used to make the “assessments” that evaluate how well a student has met a learning outcomes seem rigorous and well-designed.  But, occasionally you will read that these assessments may be just tests, or doing a process or, perhaps a portfolio. But these assessments seemingly are ex-post-facto.  This, of course, takes away the reflective and integrative thinking aspect of ongoing assessment that is managed by the learner. 

CBE is here to stay as it addresses the demands for less expensive education, for education designed for older students, for a more concrete body of evidence of competence, and for integrating more technology-provided services.  It is hard to argue with CBE since it is addressing real needs today when people need to keep learning throughout the life of their career. 

CBE Has Limited Applicability

But, it seems to me that CBE cannot be a model for all of higher education as it is implemented now.  The reasons:

·      Traditional age students are rarely ready for self-paced, independent learning, at least when they start college.

·      Learning is social and this is true especially for young students.  Learning with a cohort has proven to be a high-impact educational practice.  CBE seems designed in large part with the individual learner in mind. 

·      The “assessments” that I’ve seen described in CBE programs range from completely authentic – doing moves on a patient simulator as part of a physical therapy program, for example – to questionable – a written test.  And, they seem to be applied only at the end of working on a learning outcome, and therefore missing entirely the learning process.  Did the student improve?  Does the student show promise of being able to learn?  Those and other critical questions go unanswered in the process of assessment I saw in descriptions of CBE programs. 

·      The emphasis on the kind of personalized learning that is computerized – whether well-designed tutorial or traditional education that is on video – is appropriate for those who are already good learners but may not help the majority of learners who have not achieved the ability for engaged and deep learning on their own. 

·      It is tempting to think of CBE as “low-horizon learning.”  You need to only meet the specified learning outcomes and no more.  It is like learning with blinders on.  Or, it can be like learning with blinders on. 

American Higher Education’s Liberal Arts Tradition

American higher education is the envy of the world for many reasons but among those reasons is the notion of liberal arts education.  Liberal arts education, we used to say, was education for life and not for a job.  Well, as the number of graduates who could not get a job in the past few years grew, that phrase came to seem hollow. 

The eportfolio community seems to have blended the ideals of liberal arts education with the practicality of CBE – authentic evidence of learning, including ALL learning as potentially endorsable, providing more control of learning to the learner – and it is important for our community to be aware of that. 

But the eportfolio community, at least in the U. S., is grounded in a liberal arts orientation.  Liberal arts education opens learning to all possibilities; in that sense it is humanistic.  One may become a good programmer because of music classes; a design thinker because of art classes; a great CEO because of learning how natural ecologies work.  It is hard to predict what learning will result in a specific understanding later on.

Good learning does NOT have predictable outcomes; or, good learning will always go beyond the predictable outcomes.  We need high-horizon learning.  Our world now is an open-ended world in which no one, no matter how expert, can predict almost anything.  We need innovative, creative people who always go beyond expected outcomes and see other ways. 

We need CBE today but we also need traditional liberal arts education; it is our strength as a country and culture and let’s not forget that. 

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